Government debates on higher education traditionally focus on making a college education available and affordable to everyone. It's time to add another conviction to this mix, that colleges and universities ought to be accountable for the quality of the educations they provide as well as for the prices they charge.
This is what Republican leaders in the House are calling for as Congress debates reauthorization of the 38-year-old Higher Education Act. It provides billions of federal tax dollars in grants, loans and support services to students and their institutions. Testimony started last year with the House Committee on Education and the Work Force, chaired by Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester, and will continue through spring.
The hearings are focusing on how to improve accountability for academic results. Here's the reason: The cost of college for parents and taxpayers is soaring. Tuitions are increasing 5 percent to 15 percent a year in some places. This comes as cash-strapped states whack higher education allocations for public colleges and endowment earnings and contributions shrink at private schools.
As college prices grow faster than inflation, complaints mount about the poor quality of many college educations. Employers say too many college graduates need remedial help with writing and other skills needed in today's jobs. The mediocre results reported recently in "Measuring Up 2002," a state-by-state report card from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, strongly suggests that our college and university system is falling short of meeting today's educational, economic and civic needs. This comes with mounting evidence that education and training beyond high school is no longer discretionary for Americans who aspire to jobs that will lead to a middle-class life.
"We're spending a lot on education," says Rep. Boehner. "A lot is expected."
Higher education's rising costs and underperformance won't self-correct. This needs fresh and serious attention from policymakers.
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